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At start of new school year, BPS grapples with late buses again

Buses arrived with preschool and kindergarten students on Monday for the first day of school at Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

With the Orange Line shutdown snarling traffic across the city, the Boston school system is struggling to meet a new state requirement that at least 95 percent of its buses arrive at school on time, although its punctuality is improving.

On Monday, the third day of school for students in grades 1-12 and the first day for kindergartners, 73 percent of buses made it to school before the opening bell, the same rate as day three last year. The performance also represents a slight improvement from Friday, when 72 percent of buses arrived on time to school and a dramatic improvement from Thursday when only half of buses were punctual.

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The timeliness of buses for last Thursday and Friday was down only a few percentage points from the opening days last fall, according to school department data.

“We are working to make sure our school buses are on time and that no family has to deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether their child will make it to school or home on time,” Mayor Michelle Wu said in an interview. “We’re seeing steady improvement and we won’t rest until we’re all the way there — making sure our students have every minute of learning time and supports at school.”

But Wu emphasized the effort is confronting a major obstacle not of the Boston Public Schools’ doing: “The reality is that there are more delays on the road for everyone right now through this shutdown. And we will look to do whatever we can to keep making that better for our families.”

The biggest challenge with traffic and getting buses to run on time appears to be in the afternoon. The city, for instance, experienced an epic surge in traffic last Thursday as schools reopened and residents tweeted pictures of traffic-clogged downtown streets.

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Consequently, only 57 and 59 percent of buses arrived at schools on time for dismissal on Thursday and Friday respectively. By comparison, 68 and 79 percent of buses were punctual on the first and second day last year.

Late-running school buses have been a chronic problem for more than a decade, testing the patience of families, students, and school staff. Not only are students missing out on learning time in the mornings, but staff often have to stay an hour or longer after school with students to wait for tardy buses, while families wait frantically at bus stops.

Every year, city and school leaders vow they will get buses to run on time but the performances of the buses tend to only fluctuate from year to year.

Boston’s efforts this year to improve bus performance got upended by the surprise announcement last month that the state would be shutting down the entire Orange Line subway system for a month with repairs extending into the first two weeks of the school year. Thousands of middle and high school students rely on the Orange Line to get to classes, forcing BPS to divert attention to address that problem.

Inclusion specialist Nick Clifford helped a student off a bus on the first day of school at Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester on Monday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Most students are making do with the temporary Orange Line shuttle buses, but about 500 middle school students have opted back onto the BPS buses, which historically transport students only in kindergarten through grade six unless they have a disability. Boston transports more than 20,500 students daily to 224 public and private schools, including some as far away as Worcester, New Hampshire, and Cape Cod, and relies on nearly 600 buses.

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The Rev. Laura Everett of Jamaica Plain got a taste of the late-running school buses last week while helping out a family who recently moved here from Haiti. She waited after school for an hour and 20 minutes for the family’s 6-year-old daughter to be dropped off at a bus stop. The next day, Everett’s downstairs neighbor helped the family, waited 45 minutes for the morning bus, and then decided to drive the girl to school.

Everett said the situation is creating much anxiety for the family, especially since the family speaks only Haitian Creole and Spanish, and a school bus tracking system on BPS’s website only seems to convey information in English. The letter the family received about the school bus assignment also was only in English, she said.

“All of this instability is really confusing and creates distrust for new residents of this city,” Everett told the Globe in an e-mail on Friday. “The mama said multiple times [Thursday] her daughter is ‘todo mi corazón’ — ‘all of my heart’ — as we waited for the school bus (Thursday) afternoon. I tried in my own broken Spanish to explain what was happening, that there was much traffic and the train was shut down. But that provides little comfort to worried parents and a fussy 3-year-old waiting by the side of the road.”

Wu said she empathizes with the plight of families.

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“I have been in the frustrated and scared place of not knowing what time your child will get home after school or where they are,” said Wu, whose two children attend BPS. “I remember first diving into the school bus routing system when I was interning in City Hall and raising my sister and having to hear that every single day she was missing the first 20 minutes of class.”

Buses arrived with preschool and kindergarten students for the first day of school Monday at Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

BPS has implemented several changes this summer in hopes of improving bus performance. A new contract requires bus drivers to test out their routes before opening day and stiffens penalties for drivers who show up late. The school system also hired more drivers, consolidated bus stops, and redrew routes.

BPS made a marked improvement in getting all the bus routes covered on Monday, when only one bus trip lacked a driver. By comparison, 42 trips lacked drivers Thursday and 38 lacked drivers Friday.

Despite the added challenges, student attendance was up on Thursday and Friday, with attendance rates of 86 percent and 89 percent respectively. By comparison, last year when all students were required to return to classrooms for the first time since the pandemic began, 81 percent showed up on the first day and 86 percent the second day.

As Acting Superintendent Drew Echelson was greeting kindergartners for their first day on Monday at the Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester, he expressed confidence that BPS would see a significant improvement.

“In the next few weeks, we should start to see numbers that are more regularly hitting the 90 percent on-time performance,” he said.

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Staff writer Adria Watson contributed to this report.

The Great Divide explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.